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The ‘fear index’ is making it look like the August swoon all over again

The CBOE Volatility Index is set to log its sixth straight rising session on Monday, as it hits its highest levels in three months.

Interestingly, the VIX has not risen for six sessions in a row since the market's August swoon, which took the S&P 500 down 11 percent in a half dozen days.

"It seems like the VIX is trying to measure not just one or two events, but five or six, and that's really the problem here," Convergex chief market strategist Nick Colas commented Monday on CNBC's "Power Lunch," referring to the upcoming Federal Reserve policy statement, Brexit vote, Russell rebalancing, bank stress test results and end of the quarter.

In sharp contrast to the August period, the S&P 500 has slid only mildly over the past six sessions. Indeed, even when the VIX is viewed in isolation, August 2015 and June 2016 look markedly different.

Back in August, the VIX more than tripled, and closed on August 24 above 40. Meanwhile, over the past six sessions, the index has not even doubled, and has barely managed to cross above its famous long-term average level of 20.

The VIX is frequently known as the market's "fear index." This is because it is computed from the prices of options on the S&P 500, and index options are more frequently used to hedge against downside than to speculate on upside — so the level of the VIX roughly tracks interest in hedging, and hence fear about market drops.

Prior to August 2015, the VIX had not seen six straight rises since during the December 2013 period leading up to the Federal Reserve's announcement that it would taper its bond buying program.

Turning back to the present, Evercore ISI technical analyst Rich Ross says, "I think the technicals are telling you that you're set up for a surprise to the upside and a break out," provided that "the chips fall our way" when it comes to the Brexit vote and the Fed.

Of course, the big move in the VIX may indicate that traders regard that as a considerable "if."

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Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan is co-anchor of CNBC's "Power Lunch" (M-F,1PM-3PM ET), one of the network's longest running programs, as well as the host of the daily investing program "Trading Nation." He is also a frequent guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and other NBC properties.

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